The Waste Pitch

Twins pitchers are apparently taught, or instructed, to waste a pitch whenever they get an 0-2 count. The theory, I’m guessing, is to see if the hitter, suddenly wary of striking out looking, will expand the strike zone and wave at an unhittable pitch. The 0-2 pitches that Twins hurlers deliver, however, tend to be so low, wide or high that no one ever swings. At best, the pitcher loses some of his advantage. The worst happened the other night to Tyler Duffey, who came on to relieve with the score tied, the bases loaded and no outs. His first two pitches made the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus look silly. Instead of trying to finish him off, his “waste pitch” bounced in the dirt and the lead run scored. Compounding the problem, the other runners advanced to second and third, so the infield “had to” play in. The next batter, with one out now, hit what would have been a double-play grounder, but it squirted just past the third baseman, playing in. Result of the “waste pitch”: three runs for the Rangers.
Speaking of strategy, I would also question the decision to have the corner infielders play in in that situation. Sano, especially, has quick reflexes and a gun for an arm; from his normal position he could throw out a runner going home a large percentage of the time. What is the counter-percentage, the number of times he doesn’t get to a ball because he is repositioned closer to home?
There is one more baseball orthodoxy I would question: when the Twins are leading in the 9th by two or more runs and an opposing batter gets to first base, they don’t hold him on and cede a free trip to second base. “The run means nothing,” we are told. But the chance to get an out at second base does have meaning. These days there are statistics for everything; so maybe my assumption can be rebutted. I feel, however, that I have seen many more times where an infielder could get an out at second but not at first than occasions where the first baseman made a play only because he was playing off the bag.
5/6/17 PS: Conversely, today a Twins pitcher with two outs and no one on threw an 0-2 slider that caught too much of the plate and ended up in the leftfield stands. Before a third out could be recorded, the Red Sox had eight runs and the game was effectively over. The Twins pitcher, Nick Tepesch, was making his first appearance with the Twins, so perhaps he hadn’t gotten the memo.

Twins in ’17

It is far better to enter the baseball season with no, or low, expectations than to have high expectations that are quickly dashed. SI was not alone in predicting that this year’s Twins would have the third-worst record in the AL and even the Minnesota writers were guarded, expressing doubts, especially, about the Twins’ pitching. So how much should we raise our hopes now that the Twins have swept the Royals in convincing fashion in the opening three-game series? Their starting pitching was good, their relief pitching excellent, defense flawless and late-inning clutch hitting impressive.
Granted, three games is a small sample and the season will be long, but there is room for optimism. For starters, much of athletic success depends upon confidence and the belief that you can and will win. When you start the season 0-9, as the Twins did last year, it is hard to get that losing mentality out of your minds. When losing is expected, it happens more often. By winning their first three games, the Twins have to be thinking, We can win, which in itself will breed success.
Now, as to the pitching. While there is no Clayton Kershaw on the staff, there are six pitchers who, to my mind, give the Twins a chance every day. Ervin Santana is a consummate professional who knows exactly what he’s doing. Hector Santiago gives us hits but limits damage and seems to win more than he should. Kyle Gibson can be very good or not, but when he’s good he’s a winner. It may take awhile to shake out the rest of the rotation, but Phil Hughes, Adelberto Mejia, Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios is a sufficient field to work with.
No one can ever predict how relievers will fare in a given season: there are always surprise stars and proven closers who falter. Confidence and the ability to throw strikes are important, and in the first three games all the relievers except the retread Craig Breslow showed potential.
On offense, the best news is the re-emergence of Miguel Sano as a hitter to be feared. He was wondrous in 2015 then disappointed horribly in 2016 and Strib writers questioned his offseason preparation. This winter, apparently, he buckled down and he has the look of a mainstay cleanup hitter. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler just have to show some progress from their first seasons to be more than acceptable as corner outfielders. The big surprises so far are new catcher Jason Castro and new shortstop Jorge Polanco. Castro, especially, was signed as a defensive upgrade but to date has been the star of the attack, walking six times and driving in go-ahead runs. Polanco is supposed to be a natural hitter, and if he slumps Eduardo Escobar can pick up any slack.
The two big question marks have, curiously, been batting 3rd and 4th in Paul Molitor’s lineup: Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer. Buxton is clearly not ready for Major League pitching, and one has to wonder (like Clark Griffith did) if he ever will be. He is extraordinary in centerfield, and putting him lower in the order may allow him to relax and find his stride. It’s exciting to see him run and I hope he will get over whatever hump is stopping him; but for now it is excruciating to see him always hitting with an 0-2 count and knowing that a swing and miss will follow. As for Mauer, how long will his reputation and huge salary protect him? He is no longer the hitter who can wait for the pitcher to throw two strikes before he starts to swing. Without power, without speed, and with defenses shifted to cover his inside-out stroke, there is so little margin for error. Will he comfortably slide down to the 6th hole, or 8th?
Anyway, these are the little dramas we will watch as they play out over the summer. It is the soap opera of personalities, not just the game itself, that makes baseball so intriguing. Who knows how the Vikings’ left guard is doing? And some games a receiver may hardly be thrown at. But we know, and can watch, every single baseball player and can judge him in isolation, live and die with every at bat.